What are the most pressing concerns of those working with Citizen Science in a post-pandemic world – an interview with Gitte Kragh

  Reading Time: 8 minutes

Gitte Kragh is a postdoc at Aarhus University, ecologist at NORDECO, co-founder of the Danish Citizen Science Network, and a Board member of the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA). With experience from citizen science projects on four continents, she is particularly interested in the interdisciplinarity required to make citizen science projects successful. Gitte was one of the main conference organisers of the recent Engaging Citizen Science Conference (#CitSci2022DK), held on April 25-26 at Aarhus University in Denmark, the first major international f2f conference on Citizen Science since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. This conference was organised by Aarhus University with support from the Danish Citizen Science Network and Aalborg University and it was funded by the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

Sally Reynolds: What were the main themes discussed by participants in the recent conference?

Gitte Kragh: Many different themes were discussed at the Engaging Citizen Science Conference; but, as the name suggested, we wanted to put an emphasis on engagement: At the conference – with it being the first f2f CS conference in a long time – we decided to go for engaging and interactive formats such as workshops, demonstrations, and dialogue roundtables. And we were fortunate that our attendees also bought into that theme, so engagement in many forms was discussed, including co-creation, co-design, and local community involvement, also leading to discussions on what these types of engagement can bring (apart from data) such as empowerment, inclusion, and scientific literacy. Important and recurring themes in areas where things happen and develop fast were also discussed, such as technology, platforms, apps, and the use of artificial intelligence. It was also great to see some new, and I believe upcoming, themes being discussed under the citizen science umbrella, such as Citizen Health Science and Citizen Agri/Food Science.

S.R: Did you notice any specific concerns expressed by participants that surprised you and if so, what were they?

G.K: The usual concerns were of course mentioned – people are still worried about funding for CS projects as that is an ongoing struggle. Linked to that is the sustainability of projects, and there seems to be a bigger focus on legacy which also reaches to concern for the citizen scientists involved: what will happen to them when the project ends? To me, this signals a positive change in the citizen science landscape in general where we focus more on our volunteers in all types of projects, not only in the community-based projects. One possibility that could alleviate this concern, for some projects at least, would be for national CS networks to be the platform where citizen scientists can always find new projects to participate in when their current project ends.

S.R: What kinds of changes have you noticed in terms of the topics addressed by CS projects and the ways in which people engage with CS since the pandemic?

G.K: As mentioned, the Health and Agri/Food fields are becoming more prominent though this change is probably more due to people within those fields now starting to identify themselves under the CS umbrella rather than due to an increase in such projects. We are also seeing more EU-funded projects both from the previous H2020 programme and under the new Horizon Europe research funding programme that include CS. I believe we will see many more in the years to come as public engagement, including CS, is now a focus area for the European Commission and in the Horizon Europe programme. This means more, large-scale CS projects across Europe in general, and specifically within the five Mission Areas (cancer, climate, climate-neutral cities, oceans & seas, and soil). 

For some CS projects, or potential projects, the pandemic with its lockdowns and restrictions actually worked as a catalyst to get more people involved, for example in environmental or ecological projects as well as online projects. The Lakes in Spare Time project – where people collect water samples – was specifically kicked off as a pilot in 2020 due to the Covid-19 lockdown, as it was something people could do on their own, while spending time in nature. The project was a success and received additional funding to expand and run for another 3 years. Also online projects, such as Stall Catchers and projects on Zooniverse, have had more and new people join their projects.

But obviously, many projects suffered during the Covid-19 pandemic with the limited ability to directly interact with (many) people. Many activities had to be cancelled or adapted in ingenious ways to allow people to still participate and interact. Digital solutions have been tried and tested, and hopefully we have learnt new ways of interacting, also with people who previously were not able to join our activities.

S.R: How would you rate the value and impact of CS projects going forward and are there any themes which you consider to be really important these days?

G.K: With the diversification in stakeholders, methods, technology, and themes involved in CS projects that we see today, I’m sure the value and impact of CS projects will increase. We are seeing organisations, businesses, and government entities in Europe showing increasing interest in citizen science as a way to reach and engage the public in scientific questions and governance; we’re seeing funding bodies starting to realise the potential of citizen science in reaching their aims; and we’re seeing increasing interest from the scientific community in not only adding scientific value and impact, but also creating value for the citizen scientists involved and creating impact on the ground based on their scientific projects. However, it is worth remembering that citizen science is not the methodological answer to any and all scientific questions; we need to carefully ensure that citizen science is the best possible method, and that the expertise is involved to make it work for all stakeholders engaged in a project. I believe all themes are important – we all work in different areas, and CS can bring added value and impact to many projects and stakeholders. We know that CS can help us reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (Fraisl et al, 2020) which cover many different areas, so I think it is about finding the best possible ways to make CS work for us, rather than limiting ourselves to using it within certain themes.

S.R:  How popular is CS in Denmark these days and do you see a growing interest in CS?   if so, from who and in what topic areas?

G.K: CS in Denmark, as in many other countries and due to the nature of scientific inquiry and funding, is ever evolving and changing. Many projects are only funded for 1-3 years, so there is a high turnover of projects. We see an increase in stakeholders interested in citizen science, e.g., government entities, municipalities, businesses, organisations, and associations, each with their own ideas and thus expanding the citizen science landscape in Denmark with new types of projects, reaching more diverse audiences. Many of them are also getting interested in Horizon Europe-funded projects, and my hope is that this will further accelerate the diversification and engagement in CS projects in Denmark. 

We see local citizen associations wanting to be involved in CS projects in their local communities, for example within nature or environmental projects such as wolf surveillance. We also see municipalities hiring new staff to enable citizen engagement at all levels, including in scientific community projects for example within digitization and environmental issues such as air pollution. A final example are high schools and high school associations starting to include student engagement in citizen science projects, enabling the young people to contribute to and directly engage with, science, not only make little experiments in school labs.

S.R: What types of support do CS projects need and how does the Danish Citizen Science Network provide such support for projects in Denmark.

G.K: Most citizen science projects are quite complex with lots of different aspects extending way beyond the scientific question at the heart of the project. National and regional CS networks, whether formal or informal, can – and do – provide many forms of support including peer support, knowledge exchange, networking opportunities, and promotion of projects and CS, for example via websites, through events, or through hosting Working Groups such as the ECSA Working Groups

However, many national CS networks – including the Danish one – are run on a volunteer basis with no or very little funding. This obviously limits the support possible, but we do what we can to facilitate networking and knowledge exchange, for example though supporting conferences such as the Engaging CS Conference last April. 

It is important to realize, however, that external organisations and networks cannot provide all the support needed for CS projects to succeed. Institutional support is crucial to the success and continuation of CS projects at research performing organisations. This is exactly the topic of the TIME4CS – ‘Supporting sustainable Institutional Changes to promote Citizen Science in Science and Technology’ – project. This EU-funded project has collected and analysed 30 case studies of institutional adoption practices of CS and have come up with 32 actions within four areas (Research, Education & awareness, Support resources & infrastructure, and Policy & assessment) that are important in supporting and embedding CS institutionally (Herrera, A. & Haklay, M. (2021). D1.1: Collection of Case Studies of institutional adoption of CS (1.0). Zenodo). 

Therefore, the support CS projects need to succeed is both from within the host organisation from the bottom up and from the top down, as well as from external stakeholders, such as funding bodies, volunteers, and national and international CS networks.

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